Michigan court opens door a bit to more slip-and-fall cases

Generic image of a gavel. (Pixabay) (Pixabay)

DETROIT – The Michigan Supreme Court on Wednesday chipped away at a longstanding legal doctrine that makes it tough to win slip-and-fall lawsuits in the state.

Donna Livings needed three surgeries after falling in an icy lot as she tried to get to work at dawn as a waitress at a suburban Detroit restaurant.

Livings died in 2020 at age 59, six years after the fall, and her estate now stands in as the plaintiff in the lawsuit. The court said in a 4-2 opinion that her family can continue to pursue a case against the property owner.

"Livings’ fall on the snow and ice occurred as she attempted to enter her workplace,” Justice David Viviano wrote for the majority. “She has raised an issue of material fact as to whether the conditions of the parking lot were effectively unavoidable.”

The case will return to Macomb County court.

It can be difficult to win injury lawsuits under Michigan's “open-and-obvious” legal standard unless someone can show a hazard had “special aspects,” due to a series of decisions starting in 2001 by a Supreme Court that was dominated by conservatives.

No other state has such a threshold, said Chief Justice Bridget McCormack, who joined the majority in favor of Livings.

The result is "fewer cases find their way to Michigan juries. ... Tort liability, like much of law, regulates risk; a rule that effectively prevents liability isn’t managing risk efficiently,” McCormack said.

Employees at Dimitre’s in Eastpointe were told to park in a rear lot and use the back door. Livings and a co-worker said there was no evidence of salt on the icy ground.

A person who encounters an icy lot at a fitness club can skip a workout. But the Supreme Court said it's not a “reasonable alternative” for Livings to turn around and miss work under similar conditions.

In a dissent, Justice Brian Zahra said the court now has shifted liability law toward someone's job status instead of solely the hazardous conditions. He wondered who next will “receive special protection.”

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